PRODUCTS ↬ MEANING
A brand is much more than a product or service.
A brand is the sum of all impressions. This is sloppy thinking. If we were to add up all the impressions and experiences associated with a product or service and draw a line under them, the sum would still be just a lot of impressions and experiences. What do you do with that information? How does it lead to smarter brand decisions?
- A promise. A brand certainly implies a promise to customers, a guarantee of minimum performance, or a certain level of satisfaction. Every company should know what its brand is promising to itscustomers. And the company should never over-promise just to make a sale. However, a promise is only a component of a brand, not the brand itself.
- A relationship. It’s quite true that a brand is a relationship between a company and its customers. In fact, a large part of this book is based on that understanding. But as a definition, will it really help? If I understand that marriage is a relationship, does it make me a better husband? If I believe I have a relationship with the government, will I become a better citizen? Okay, a brand is a relationship. So what?
- A reputation. This definition seems almost perfect. Once you conceive of a brand as a reputation, you can think more clearly about how to build it, shape it, and protect it. It’s a lot like a personal reputation. Except that a personal reputation is something you can affect personally, whereas a commercial reputation requires the coordinated effort of many people with differing views and skills. How do we build it? Who is it for? What does it mean? The definition doesn’t say.
- A customer’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company. Are we there yet? Well, let’s see. It puts the customer in the center of the picture. It focuses everyone in the company on customer perceptions—those fleeting experiences and fickle emotions that determine meaning. And it offers a simple way to measure progress. If we listen to what customers say, and watch what they do, we can find out where we stand with them. Yes! I think we might be there.
TRANSACTIONS ↬ RELATIONSHIPS
A sale requires a single transaction. A brand requires thousands or even millions of transactions, plus a huge number of relationships. To manage these relationships, you need to master the complex machinery of brand building. “Master” may be too strong a word, since no one can fully master such a creative, dynamic discipline. You’ll occasionally get confused by all the cables, levers, meters, dials, and switches.
Keep it simple. Start with a document that maps out the basic contract between you and your customer. Then build it out element by element, move by move. With each new element or move, go back to the original contract and make sure you haven’t violated its terms. If your brand effort gets off course (and it probably will), go right back to basics.
This brings me to the Brand Commitment Matrix, the simple tool at the heart of this book.
Here’s how it works. Two columns, one for customers and one for the company. Each column contains three key statements. For customers, the statements will describe their identity (who they are), their aims (what they want), and their tribe’s mores (how they belong). These form the acronym IAM.
For the company, the statements will describe its purpose (why we exist), its onlyness (what we offer), and its values (how we behave). These form the acronym POV.
The statements in each column should line up horizontally: customer identity and company purpose should align; customer aims and product “onlyness” should support each other; and tribal mores and company values should be in sync. If they don’t align, what you have is a broken brand. If they do, you have the basis for a rich and productive relationship.
AUTHORITY ↬ AUTHENTICITY
The rise of consumerism, combined with the democratization of technology, encouraged us to look deeper inside the companies we do business with. People began to glimpse the motives, practices, and deceptions that had previously been obscured. Today, we no longer accept the authority of large organizations simply because they’re large. We now look for something more than authority. We look for authenticity.
We talk a lot about authenticity, but what is it? Honesty? Transparency? Reliability? Fairness? Folksiness? The closer we get to a definition, the more it seems like a mirage. What seems authentic to me might not be authentic to you.
To achieve authenticity with your tribe, you have to begin with purpose. A company’s purpose, simply stated, is the reason it’s in business beyond making money. For example, Google’s purpose is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Apple’s purpose is “to make tools for the mind.” Cirque du Soleil’s purpose is “to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses, and evoke the emotions.” Coca-Cola’s purpose is simplest of all: “To refresh the world.”
When you align your purpose with your customer’s identity, you get something called fit. Fit lets your customers know they’ve found the real deal, the genuine article, the honest-to-goodness-best-company-ever. To paraphrase author Virginia Postrel, they like it because they’re like it. Your purpose fits their identity.
Shoe company Zappos spends far more on customer service than marketing. Its brand tribe includes not only customers but employees, who are encouraged to use their authentic voices in social media to help scale the brand community. A rare instance of Zappos “advertising” is a 40-mile stretch of Adopt-a-Highway signs from the California border to its home in Nevada, in a public-spirited effort to keep the roadside clean.
COMPETING ↬ DIFFERENTIATING
One reason purpose is so powerful is that it can help a company over hurdles that would seem insurmountable to less committed rivals. Others give up; you double down. Yet even purpose, passion, and commitment are not enough to win the race. You also need strategic differentiation.
Differentiation is the process of staking out a market position that you can own and defend. When your offering is unique and compelling enough, you don’t need to compete on price. In fact, you don’t need to compete much at all, except for attention. In most customers’ minds there’s only one Amazon, one Patagonia, one Dyson, one Twitter, one Muji, one Tesla, one Rosetta Stone, one Mayo Clinic. These companies and their products stand alone because of their design, their approach, their beliefs, their vision, or some other special quality. One way or another, they’ve achieved a state of onlyness.
When you’re the “only” in your category, you can name the tune that fast-following competitors must dance to. You can define the “criteria of purchase,” according to Niraj Dawar, author of Tilt. “You don’t need to sweat every product launch, every new feature introduced by a competitor,” he says. “Just pay attention to those who would wrest control of the criteria of purchase.” For example, Volvo has famously differentiated on safety, allowing it to later take the credit for airbags and pedestrian detection. As long as Volvo stays focused on its onlyness, direct competitors will have to play second fiddle.
PROCESSES ↬ VALUES
In today’s age of customer control, company processes are still important. But they’re subject to increasing flux. They need to be invented and reinvented on the fly, according to the desires and dictates of customers. They can’t be developed at the top of the organization and handed down for workers to implement. They must be designed by the workers themselves, often in the moment.
To accomplish this, a company must develop a culture of creative autonomy, guided by a shared understanding of “how we work together” or “how we behave.” Company culture is the complement to customer mores, the rules that determine how customers belong to tribes.
The best way to shape company culture is to encourage adherence to a set of values. For example, the world-class experience that Ritz-Carlton provides its guests comes directly from its master value of “service.” This value is broken down into 12 sub-values that employees must agree to uphold.
PLANS ↬ EXPERIMENTS
There’s an old adage in business: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Yet plans fail all the time. You research the market, crunch the numbers, build a budget, outline the steps, and place them on a timeline. Nice and tidy. And then your plan meets reality in a head-on collision. The market ignores your product, sales don’t hit targets, costs run over, and everything takes longer than it should. Your business dies a quick death and investors lose their shirts.
Why does this happen? Because plans—specifically those involving innovation—are necessarily based on faulty assumptions. There’s no way to predict whether or not the market will embrace a new product, service, feature, or business model. There are too many unknowns. To succeed in a dynamic market, you have to flip your approach from planning to experimenting.
In his book The Innovator’s Hypothesis, Michael Schrage says that plans are based on a presumption of knowledge, whereas experiments are based on a presumption of ignorance. It’s better to learn offstage so you can triumph onstage. “Innovation amateurs talk good ideas,” he says. “Innovation experts talk testable hypotheses,”
OVERCHOICE ↬ SIMPLICITY
For flipped companies, the deluge of over-choice is an opportunity. The same technology that created customer choice can be used to simplify it. This is what Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw in 1998 when they launched Google. Their refreshingly simple home page was a life raft in an ocean of data, promising users a simple benefit—the ability to find something fast. Other smart companies are now following suit. They’re using design to remove clutter and give people back their lives.
Why do companies create clutter in the first place? Why not start simple, like Google did, and just keep it simple? Because simplicity has many enemies. It takes great clarity, courage, and discipline to vanquish them.